Speaking trumpets: blowing the museum’s horn

I am reading Ken Arnold’s Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums at the moment. Arnold uses a comparative approach to consider contemporary museums in context of the founding principles of museums of the 17th century.

He discusses “three dominant strategies for knowledge creation in museums… the telling of stories, the use of objects, and the imposition of order upon them” (Arnold 2006, 4). As I’ve been reading the book, it has really struck me that, online at least, museums seem to be renegotiating these key strategies – moving away from both the use of objects to construct knowledge and away from strict taxonomies (since the Internet is much more rhizomatic than hierarchical). Instead there seems to be a renewed interest (also here, and here too) in the telling of stories as a primary driving force for knowledge creation online, and in making that relationship dialogic, rather than unidirectional.

Therefore, it was with interest that I read this paragraph in Arnold’s (2006, 90) book (emphasis mine):

The urge to tell stories in museums can only be understood once the role of people as well as the object within them has been fully grasped, and this is crucially on both sides of the collector/curator – visitor/audience divide. Museums have always been places for people’s discursive lives: spaces for teaching and learning, but also quite simply for sounding off. This is why it was quite natural for the sixteenth-century naturalist Athanasius Kircher to equip his museum with speaking trumpets, ensuring that curators and visitors were audible to each other – as if the significance of the spoken word was too great simply to be left to the vagaries of the unaided voice.

I love that almost 500 years ago the creators of museums were grappling with – and finding solutions to – the same questions that we ponder today.

Kircher’s speaking trumpets, from the Special Collections and University Archives of Stanford University Libraries

For a more contemporary take on Kircher’s speaking trumpets, the Scapes exhibition/app created by sound artist Halsey Burgund for deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Massachusetts seems like a pretty cool way of inviting interactivity and story-telling into the museum environment. From the description, Scapes:

creates a two-way audio experience for museum visitors influenced significantly by their physical location on deCordova grounds. Participants will use handheld wireless devices and headphones to listen to audio and also to make their own recordings which will be immediately assimilated into the piece for everyone to hear.

Check out the below video to get a better sense of it, or read reviews by Nancy Proctor and Ed Rodley.  

Scapes Intro from Halsey Burgund on Vimeo.

Narrative, sharing and memory

I was reading an article yesterday about new media as it relates to news processes, but its lessons seem equally applicable to the online museum.
Remembering through Sharing by Julia Sonnevend  addresses Sonnevend’s experiences and observations of entry into an online community engaged in commemorating the death of a film-maker who was brutally murder in Puerto Rico in 2009. After being introduced to the story and community through a friend, Sonnevend became engaged in both learning about – and remembering – a man whom she had never met.

She uses the experience to make two key observations that can be applied to the online museum experience.

The first is that “personalised narrative [can provide an] introduction to further narratives.” She explains:

First, it shows how introductory personalized narratives can help us when we have to choose from many competing stories. You can (and want to) provide your attention only to a very small number of stories and friends can help decide which those will be. Friends’ personalized narratives work as leads to the news items and navigate you in the jungle of news narratives.

In this age of massive data when content curation is an issue of on-going significance, personalised narratives or recommendations can provide an effective entry point into the online museum, be it through social networking sites or other forms of recommendation. If we want people to engage with our websites and collections there needs to be a personal aspect to the engagement, so that the user has a reason to invest their time and energy into the site. While a researcher might examine a collection website because he/she is seeking information on a particular artefact or group of artefacts, if we want non-experts to engage with a site there needs to be a compelling and personal point of entry.

Secondly, Sonnevend discusses sharing as a commemorative act or ‘remembering through sharing’. She writes,

Online commemoration seems a little bit like ‘news:’ central to us for a short time, but forgettable on a long run. Just like traditional news, sharing the information on social networking sites is very effective in triggering social solidarity. And personalized narratives along with personalized visual and textual memorial sites contribute to this triggering effect.

She considers both traditional and new cultural practices for social remembrance, and concludes that the act of sharing information online – through linking and online discussion – is

a quick and powerful way to express solidarity. It is quick, because it does not require more than a few seconds from you. It is powerful, because the low barriers of distribution enable you to broadcast the news to many at the same time. It is important to note, however, that in most of the cases you broadcast to a certain group of people, to your fellow ‘friends’ and ‘followers,’ but not to ‘all.’

Museums are lieux de mémoire – sites of memory. By lowering barriers to engagement and making online objects easy to share and broadcast, we can enable online communities to participate in acts of commemoration and social remembrance and grow their sense of social solidarity.

Museums might make beautiful looking and functional websites, but unless visitors have reason to personally engage with the site and to connect its contents with their own lives, then surely the relationship will be superficial at best. Engagement will come when visitors have an emotional connection to the site and a reason to invest further in it – like when the experience is emotionally rewarding (and maybe even fun!). Personalised narratives can provide a vehicle to get people in, and lowered barriers of engagement can give them a reason to broadcast and share those stories with others. Therefore, when designing museum websites – or apps – maybe we need to consider why someone would personally engage with the site, and how to ensure they broadcast their engagement to get others involved too.